What Seaspiracy Gets Right About the Exploitative Fishing Industry

The slander against the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy says a lot about fishing industry influence in marine science. We have somehow allowed the fisheries industry’s own scientists to define sustainable fishing goals — it’s a disgrace leading to an ecological nightmare.

The upwelling scrutiny around Seaspiracy deflects from the greater issues it raises. (Valery Sharifulin / TASS via Getty Images)

Ocean QAnon,” “eco-fascism,” “self-indulgent vegan propaganda” — fishing industry scientists are angry about Seaspiracy, the new Netflix special topping charts around the world, which details the impact of industrial fishing on marine life and the complicity of certification labels and even some ocean conservation groups. The controversy swirling around Seaspiracy seems to center around statistics, but beneath the surface lurk deeper questions about industry influence in marine science.

Seaspiracy is not without its faults. Its interview style is abrasive. It has excessive animation. It makes a couple of statistical misinterpretations and several oversimplifications. Yet the film is mainly accurate and devastatingly detailed, provoking viewers around the world to question the industry values that have become integral to marine science orthodoxy: Why do we call fish populations “stocks”? What does it mean to call them “under-fished”? How do they calculate maximum sustainable yield? Is it really sustainable?

The academy’s response to Seaspiracy was swift, stern, and sloppy. Although allegedly leaked documents show that groups like the National Fisheries Institute were preparing a media response for weeks, the industry-funded Sustainable Fisheries, University of Washington’s fact-check page falsely claimed that one of the film’s source studies — estimating 20-32 percent of marine life imported to the United States was caught illegally — had been retracted. Ironically, they had to retract the claim. Sustainable Fisheries UW correctly questioned a sea turtle bycatch statistic, for which Seaspiracy repeated a mistake made on a Sea Turtle Conservancy white paper. Even though fisheries scientists tracked down the source study, they didn’t seem to read the abstract, which revealed that the near-global figure was misattributed to the United States. Instead, they attacked its credibility, revealing the modus operandi of fishing industry public relations.

It’s fair to say that Seaspiracy cited some studies that can be considered dated or disputed, but it also left out some of the most harrowing statistics published in recent years. The most current worldwide analysis estimated the bycatch of at least 8.5 million sea turtles in a seventeen-year period. Catch reconstructions show total fish hauls as peaking in 1996 and declining ever since, despite exponential industrialization and permeation of fishing fleets. A global investigation of navigation patterns estimated up to a quarter of fishing vessels may have forced labor on deck.

The most controversial statistic in the film is the projection of global crashes in commercially exploited fish populations by 2048. What the industry doesn’t mention is that they generated the controversy. Since the 2006 publication of “Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services” in Science magazine, industry groups have doggedly scolded media outlets for citing it. Professor Ray Hilborn, who founded Sustainable Fisheries UW, emerged as this study’s most prominent critic. A decade later, he would be exposed for not only receiving millions of dollars in seafood industry funding but failing to disclose it as a conflict of interest. While he did work with the author of the 2048 projection on a subsequent paper, this research didn’t correct or disprove its conclusions but rather cited them.

The lead author on both studies is a conservation biologist named Boris Worm, who said fisheries scientists’ cooperation on the second made him “somewhat more optimistic” but explicitly stated that the work “did not revisit the original projections.” When he finally did so in 2016, he clarified that updated models were less ominous but remained “sobering.” Hilborn nevertheless continues to crusade on behalf of industrial fishing, publicly advocating against marine reserves and providing testimony to lawmakers on the dangers of “under-fishing.” His foundation’s Seaspiracy response disputes four statistics out of more than one hundred, all of them by downplaying the degree of the problem and criticizing colleagues’ research, begging the question: Is the film full of errors, or does it just upset the industry?

The enduring controversy over the 2048 projection is emblematic of a much deeper rift in marine science, between those who view fish as wildlife to be protected versus resources to be extracted — namely conservation biology versus fisheries science. While conservation biologists aim to restore fish populations, the explicit goal of fisheries science is to repress their recovery. The simplistic modeling formulae upon which modern fisheries science is founded defines the population level of maximum sustainable yield as half of a fish population’s carrying capacity. In theory, this strikes a balance between reproducing individuals and limiting factors where maximum population growth — and, conveniently, maximum profitability — will occur.

This means that when the UN Food and Agriculture Organization says that two-thirds of “fish stocks [are] within biologically sustainable levels” (disputed in itself), this means that most of these populations are at approximately half their historical levels, with the remaining third lower yet. Below 40 percent, populations are classified as overfished — in the United States, however, the threshold is 25 percent. Anything above 60 percent carrying capacity is defined as “under-fished.” This philosophy is not only markedly errant from fishing practices sustained for millennia by indigenous cultures but has become one of the greatest threats to their subsistence. In essence, we have allowed fisheries industry scientists to define sustainable fishing goals, somewhat like allowing petroleum geologists to set emissions targets.

However, fisheries scientists weren’t the only academics to decry Seaspiracy. While received rather differently by marine biologists around the world, these industry paradigms run deep in American academia. Sylvia Earle and Callum Roberts, the marine biologists Seaspiracy consults, represent marginalized ideologies and receive criticism for valuing fish as wildlife, as Dr Earle puts it, arguing that our goal should be to minimize, not maximize, their extraction. This advocacy got her locked out of meetings as the first female chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, advising the regulatory body formerly called the National Marine Fisheries Service — now NOAA Fisheries — of which she says the “primary purpose is to serve the interest of commercial fishing.”

While the pointed message of the film has inspired a reflection on these values among average viewers, it seems that academic institutions, in fisheries science and marine biology alike, may be some of the last to consider them. At least that’s how I felt after a summer researching at UW.

“Looks like we’ll have another urchin-cracking party,” my principal investigator chuckled, planning another student’s study on urchin gonad contents. My eyes widened as I realized she was talking about “my” urchins, whose feeding behavior I was studying in tanks down the road. They were wild-captured giant red sea urchins — Strongylocentrotus franciscanus — the biggest species in the world. They can grow to twenty-one inches from spine to spine and live for perhaps two hundred years. Some of these urchins may have walked the seafloor below the bustling canoe fleets of the precolonial Salish nations. Many were likely older than me. I wanted to set them free but was hesitant to object, as this research project was a critical opportunity for me to build connections and obtain references for grad school.

As I loaded up the urchins near the dock, the marine lab’s program director approached me. I waved nervously. “Thank you,” she said, in her thick Senegalese accent. She told me of prestigious urchin researchers she’d seen in her career simply leave captured urchins in stagnating tanks to die in the sun. “Of course,” I replied. She must not have heard that there were other plans for them. As I reached the other side of the channel and cut the engine, I pulled out a plastic drum brush and began tickling the urchins’ tube feet until they let go. I leaned over the gunwale, placing them carefully in the water and finally came to my favorite — Houdini. I was never quite able to design an enclosure capable of containing that one.

Watching the little urchin slowly disappear into the depths of Puget Sound, I couldn’t help but smile, rediscovering what I had always known yet learned to forget: marine life is wildlife.

The upwelling scrutiny around Seaspiracy deflects from the greater issues it raises. Life on Earth began in the sea, and human life has always been bound to it. We must protect our ocean, using all strategies at our disposal, and collectively reclaim the authority to govern how it is treated from those who profit from its exploitation.